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Friday, June 24th, 2016

Vineyard workers sneeze in unison as the unmistakable smell of grapevines in bloom wafts across the peninsula.  Each pull of a shoot or yank of a sucker knocks thousands of pollen particles into the air – and eventually into our collective nasal passages to create one mighty “sonic bloom”.

What a difference a year makes.  I remember the abject despair with which I traversed these rows last spring, as one vine after another collapsed into oblivion.  The growing season of 2015 became more about rejuvenation than celebration in a number of varietals – particularly Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

I can’t begin to describe the relief in watching the tender suckers I white-knuckled together last season become the strong, fully-budding trunks I see before me now.  There are still failures, but not nearly in the magnitude of 2015.  Ideal weather conditions have helped get us back on track and now I can shift my focus back to formulating a plan to shape and position these burgeoning vines.

Please stay with me here as I attempt to outline a mindset that some may find perplexing.  I was a weird kid (you can debate whether this has changed) who always found comfort in a well-organized strategy.  Toys were for displaying and cataloging, not playing with.  Upon receipt of the official Toronto Maple Leaf 1984-85 Fact Book, I set out to memorize the birthdays and relevant personal facts of the entire roster, just so I could be prepared if anyone ever asked me.  Kids growing up in the Google age will never experience the joys of memorizing useless facts – like Walt Poddubny’s pre-game meal or Bill Derlago’s favourite out of town restaurant.

So here is where my head is at when I look out over the vineyard on this first day of summer: roughly 150 rows to tackle, at an average of 3 rows per day, means that I should be able to finish properly fashioning my vines in about 50 days.  Factoring in that my progress will be slower as the days get hotter and the vine growth intensifies, and throwing in the odd “wife-mandated” day off, I should be done thinning in about two months.

I’m most efficient working down each row from left to right and prefer not to leave an unfinished row at the end of the day.  One veteran move is to always work on the shady side of the row (west side in the morning, east side in the afternoon), as it will keep you cooler throughout the day and the contrast will be better for locating unwanted growth.

My traditional starting point would be the Pinot Noir blocks, but the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are showing the strongest vigour this year, with an inordinate amount of secondary shoots and an explosion of centrally located growth – all of which must go!

There is a method to this mindset, as I find greater motivation when jobs have a clear start and end point.  It is one reason why we release wines only once per year.  The wine is bottled and the wine is sold, then we start all over again.  It may be what appeals to me most about farming – every season has a harvest, an ultimate prize to work toward and celebrate upon it’s completion.

That’s enough typing for now…I’ve got three rows to finish.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.  The story of our 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is filled with both.  The bad news starts with the amount of damage sustained by the vines after a second consecutive harsh winter.  Very few of the suckers that were brought up to become new trunks in 2014 actually made it into the 2015 growing season.  There were those that looked like they were going to bud out, only to agonizingly collapse a couple of weeks later.  The sheer number of dead buds made for disproportionate growth and vine vigour issues – meaning lots of extra work.  The far north end of the block looked more like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse than a vineyard, replete with half-dead, split trunks oozing crown gall tumours…

The good news is that we had any Sauvignon Blanc fruit at all!  In fact, 2015 was an amazing growing season for whites, with moderate heat and cool nights during peak ripening time.  The lighter crop ripened very quickly, ultimately leading to intense concentration of flavours and aromatics.  I stuck with my tried and true formula in the winery, with 75% of the juice fermented and aged in my trusty old French oak barrels and 25% done in tank.  The finished wine was blended, filtered and then bottled on April 6th, 2016.

Aromas:  “a nose for days”; candied pear, lemon/lime, melon, grilled pineapple

Palate:  rounder, riper, more weighty mouthfeel; pineapple, hint of lime; enjoyed best at cellar temperature (60-65°F)

Production:  210 cases

 

2015 Pinot Gris

Our Pinot Gris sustained similar winter damage to it’s neighbouring Sauvignon Blanc, which was surprising because it is considered a much more winter-hardy varietal.  Another sobering reminder of just how much sustained extreme cold the vines experienced in the winter of 2014.

The very light crop (about 40% of a normal year) made the vineyard work easier to stay on top of, ultimately producing some of the cleanest fruit we’ve ever seen in that block.  Pinot Gris is my favourite varietal to walk through in the fall because of the cool look of the tight, metallic-pink coloured clusters and the intense aromas in the air.  Tasting each berry is a treat, as flavours explode in your mouth.  You can almost anticipate the texture of the wine they will soon create.

We harvested our ripe Pinot Gris on September 18, 2015.  Believe it or not, one of the challenges I face crafting my whites is finding good, used white wine barrels.  It seems that more and more winemakers are holding onto their prized neutral wood – and I can’t blame them!  I was fortunate this past vintage to pick up some great older white barrels from J.L. Groux at Stratus, and about 66% of my 2015 Pinot Gris juice was the direct beneficiary.  All juice was fermented with R2 yeast and likely went through a partial, wild malolactic fermentation.

Appearance:  golden pink colour

Aromas:  honey, peach, vanilla, Honeycrisp apple, cream soda

Palate:  velvety texture, good balance with ample acidity; important not to drink too cold – 60°F is good

Production:  110 cases

 

2015 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

Many experts feel that it takes about ten years for a planting of grapes to really come into its own.  I feel like the wine from “Jean’s Block” is getting more complex with each vintage and it bodes well for this relatively young, 9-year old Riesling block.

What I like most about Riesling is their reliability from a growing perspective.  They crop well, ripen without issue and always seem to have enough acidity to make a nice wine, whether your preferred style is dry or off-dry.

We harvested the 2015 crop on October 8th and the fruit came in at 18.3 degrees Brix.  Previous vintages have taught me that “two yeasts are better than one” in terms of wine complexity, so I split the juice into two tanks: 900L fermented with W15 and 375L with R2.  What resulted was one of the longest fermentations I’ve ever experienced – the ferments started on October 16th and didn’t reach a “balance” point (Specific Gravity 1.003)  until December 1st!  This was not done by choice, but the results were a pleasant surprise.  Sometimes yeast just become a little sluggish in high-acid/low pH must.  There were times when I thought the fermentation was stuck, but I chose not to re-inoculate and patience paid off in the end.

I love the nose produced by Clone 49 Riesling – it’s just so fresh and intense!  We bottled this wine on April 6th, 2016.

Aromas:  apricot, peach, lemon, green apple

Palate:  both sweet and sour notes perceptible; resolves into crisp, dry balance

Production:  130 cases

 

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

2013 Pinot Noir

In looking back at my harvest notes for the 2013 Pinot Noir, I’m immediately drawn to the “Fruit Condition” section where I have written:  excellent; “Some of the nicest we’ve ever picked.” – Wilma.  I remember it well, and it makes me smile as much now as it did when she said it on September 18, 2013.

We hand-picked 90 boxes from rows 3, 4 & 5 and 64 boxes from rows 8 & 9.  These are the rows that I traditionally use, and they represent a good cross section of terroir from our oldest vines.  The Pinot was sorted four times:  first I do a quick pass on my own before we harvest to remove any obvious rot; then each picker must inspect clusters as they cut them; a third inspection takes place as boxes are loaded onto the wagon and finally again as they are dumped into the crusher.  Those select few Pinot berries that made the final cut ended up filling two fermenting bins.

After a four day cold soak at 18°C, the first bin containing rows 3, 4 & 5 was inoculated with RC212 yeast and the second bin (rows 8 & 9) was inoculated with W15.  Fermentation lasted about a week, with peak temperature around 34°C.  Wines were then inoculated with malolactic bacteria strain MBR31 and racked to barrel.  After 24 months in oak (100% French, 20% new), the wine was blended and eventually bottled on April 6, 2016.

Aromas:  “Like walking into a pantry”; ripe cherry, dried spices, truffle

Palate:  light velvety texture; good balance; enjoyable now, but just enough tannin to make you want to lay it down for a while

Production: 145 cases

 

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

A later Spring than 2012 (few are earlier) led to an interesting vintage that felt like a constant uphill battle.  The growing degree days were just not adding up, so an effort was made to dramatically reduce crop level at veraison.  Then we waited…and waited some more…until all the leaves had fallen and finally picked our Cab on November 15, 2013.

The fruit was quite desiccated on the vine at this stage, almost a late harvest look, and we actually ended up with close to 23 degrees Brix and reasonable acidity.  The drastic thinning gamble had worked, but at the expense of tonnage.  We ended up with only 117 picking boxes of Cab Sauv from five rows that would have normally yielded 150 boxes.

The fruit was processed into two bins and after a four day cold soak, Bin 1 was inoculated with FX10 and Bin 2 with F15.  Finished wine was blended, inoculated with MBR31 bacteria and racked to barrel where it would spend the next two years.  Two new French barrels were used (Taransaud and Billon) along with a couple of wily veterans.  The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled on April 6th, 2016.  This wine will surprise many people.

Aromas:  cherry, blackberry, anise, loose-leaf tea

Palate:  flavours as intense as the nose; nice texture; savoury; integrated tannins make it both drinkable and cellar-worthy

Production:  100 cases

 

2013 Syrah

*See 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon for the challenges associated with this growing season.

As we nervously hung our Syrah into November for the first time, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be writing a description for a Five Rows 2013 Syrah – the grapes just didn’t look right.  They tasted fine, the lab numbers were good, but the berries looked wrinkled and raisin-like.

A harvest date was finally settled upon, but to our astonishment we awoke that day to….frozen Syrah-sicles!  An overnight frost had thrown a wrench into the plans, making for a unique harvesting and de-stemming experience.  The stems were so brittle that I was concerned the berries wouldn’t properly separate from the rachis going through the de-stemmer, adding unwanted bits of stem to the must.  In the end – I needn’t have fretted, as the semi-frozen berries rattled off the rachis with ease.

82 boxes were harvested from Clone 7 rows 2 & 3, along with 57 boxes from Clone 100 (“Old Block”) rows 1 & 2.  The Clone 7 was inoculated with RX60 and the Old Block with F15.  Both bins were pressed after a week-long fermentation.  The whole batch was aged in French oak; three older barrels and one new (DAMY Rouge).

This wine was incredibly smooth from the get-go, and frankly I have no idea why.  Perhaps it was the extended hang time and wilted berries, perhaps it was the frost – yet more proof that the most unique wines often result from unforeseen circumstances.  It was bottled on April 6th, 2016.

Aromas:  lavender, cassis, vanilla, cooked meat, thyme (“Smells like a lamb dinner” – Wilma)

Palate:  smooth as silk, very savoury, hint of pepper, finish dominated by dark fruit

Production:  100 cases

 

 

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

As a general rule, I don’t enjoy being judged.  I’d much rather blend into the background like a chameleon and go about my business unnoticed.  There are exceptions, however, and when we got the letter that our family vineyard had been nominated for the 2016 Cuvée Vineyard of Excellence award, I realized that the time had come to get over this phobia and submit myself to potential criticism.

The specific block in the spotlight was our Clone 169 Cabernet Sauvignon, located just steps outside the barn door.  It was planted in the late 90’s, using “traditional” Lowrey methods:  Dad on the tractor and my Mom and I pulled behind on the planter.  The Lowrey method relied heavily on the ability of the tractor driver to maintain a straight line, and the jury is still out as to whether Howard Jr. inherited his father’s eagle eye and steady hand.  This was before the days of GPS and laser-guided planters – and one look at the hither and yon vine spacing is more than enough evidence of that.  It is also worth pointing out that proper and consistent end-post angles were not yet fashionable in the 90’s.  You have to remember this was the the decade of frosted tips and crooked posts.

So needless to say, I was greatly relieved to find out that the Award of Excellence was not based solely on aesthetics.  An esteemed panel of judges would scout the field at certain points during the season to evaluate vine balance, fruit maturity, disease pressure, crop level, and harvest ripeness parameters.  Being a Cab Sauv block, our biggest challenge in Niagara is getting enough heat to ripen the fruit, so I did my best to thin the block to a level that would give each vine a chance to ripen its crop load.  Thankfully, the late summer and fall of 2015 provided just the conditions we needed.

When it was announced at the Cuvée ceremony last night that we had, in fact, been named recipients of this award, I was struck with many emotions.  To be on the stage with my Dad, being recognized for something that we had done together will be something I never forget.  Looking out on the crowd of people, I realized many of them had been directly responsible for my choice of career and it reminded me how fortunate I’ve been to receive their guidance over the years.  Perhaps there was also some validation for doing things the old fashioned way – a small vineyard, a father and a son (Lowrey methods notwithstanding).

Green Thinning

 

Ripe Cab Sauv

 

 

 

 

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

Perhaps the number one thing I look forward to each winter season is the opportunity to participate in a few Winemaker Dinners with my family.  When the vines are dormant I tend to be as well, so invitations to be a part of these lavish evenings are received with great joy!

We were very fortunate this year to be featured at a dinner hosted by the Ontario Wine Society (Toronto Chapter) where the theme was a celebration of Lowrey Vineyard Terroir through a comparison of wines made from our fruit.  The OWS brought together a wonderful group of winemakers who’ve worked with our grapes over the years – specifically Pinot Noir.  The event took place at Barque Butcher Bar and the pairings were facilitated by Michael Godel, who spoke very kindly and shared some flattering observations about our humble little vineyard in St. David’s.

Thomas Bachelder acted as host for the evening and I would’ve been perfectly content to listen to Thomas wax poetic about Terroir and Pinot Noir for the entire night if it was up to me!  Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Wines also brought some very interesting insight to the Terroir debate, as well as some stellar wines.  He pointed out that he sees hallmarks of Lowrey Terroir not only among certain varietals like Pinot, but across varietals as well.  We all agreed that there are distinctive elements that define the Lowrey flavour and aromatic profile, as well as textural and mouthfeel similarities.  Ilya also noted that as our collective wines age (that is wines made by Bachelder, Five Rows and Leaning Post from Lowrey fruit) the similarities of Terroir tend to become more pronounced.  The effect of the winemaker giving way to the effect of Terroir over time is a very interesting concept indeed.

I feel very proud that Mario Adamo thought enough of our Five Rows wines to inquire about purchasing some of our fruit for his own winery venture.  The dynamic brother-sister duo of Julie and John Paul Adamo joined us for the evening, and Julie did a great job taking us through their journey to start a winery in the hills of Hockley Valley.  It was exciting for me to see what an excellent job they’ve done with the Pinot Noir from our 2008 planting.  I see great potential for this block based on their initial efforts, and I highly recommend giving the wines of Adamo Estate Winery a try sometime soon!

Highlights of the dinner were detailed in the latest OWS newsletter and can be read here.

The Grand Crew

 

 

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

battle scars

As yet another memorable harvest draws to a close, I delight in sharing some of the bizarre things that have crept into my exhausted mind over the last couple of months.  It can be a grind at times, so pulling back the curtain a bit to reveal some of the lighter moments keeps me from taking it too seriously.

While conducting a final cull of rotten berries in our original planting of Pinot Noir early in September, I found myself uttering a few choice words at these cursedly tight clusters.  It culminated in a rather aggressive flick attempt with my clippers to remove a rotten berry which, in turn, produced a wild spray of acidic juice directly into my face.  This moment surely sums up the give and take relationship I have with these old vines, a relationship that began to take human form.

In fact, as I wiped the burning juice from my eyes, I surmised that these five rows are like the brother I never had.  We are of similar age (although I am slightly older and wiser) and we have grown up on this farm together.  We compete for my parents’ attention and can get very jealous of one another, yet our individual success is completely reliant upon the other.  There are epic fights, but if anyone else is critical of my Pinot vines – I’ll kick their ass.  We always have each other’s back because our tangled roots run ever deep in this soil.

While pacing around the barn on a weekend that saw a forecasted 15-20mm of rain balloon to a record 86mm, I realized just how tied to the weather my mood becomes during harvest.  A rainy day may as well be the end of the world in my mind.  Everything is planned around them, you can’t do anything during them, and nothing good ever comes as a result of them!  I become consumed with regrets:  Should we have picked earlier? Did I just ruin everything good I’ve done all year by letting them hang through a hail storm?  How long will this field take to dry out?

Conversely, when the sun is shining – so am I.  Strutting around the farm with a wide smile and time enough for everyone, I ooze positivity.  It doesn’t get any better than walking through a block of ripe, clean grapes knowing you could pick them whenever you like.  I taste each berry thoroughly and make a mental note of which vines and rows will make the cut this year.  As you are probably aware, this happens with extreme rarity.

More often I’m faced with a scenario akin to the following:  We finish pressing Pinot Noir and I finally have a chance to get out and take a good look at the Riesling.  I walk over to the block and think to myself, “Ahh, the patience of Riesling…I can leave them to the end every year and they never let me down!”

It only takes few minutes to realize I’ve waited WAY to long to thin out these vines and now I’ve got a tinderbox of Botrytis on my hands.  I flash back to those times during the year when I’d walk by the Riesling and pay them but a fleeting glance before moving on to more pressing concerns.  Perhaps I knew deep down that the day of reckoning would come soon enough.

It is reminiscent of a scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee is faced with saving all the pets from a burning pet store.  Of course he saves the cute puppies and bunnies first, each time running past the terrarium of snakes with a look of terror that I know all too well.  The scene ends with a hysterical Pee-Wee running out of the store with fistfuls of snakes and collapsing to the ground.

Before I know it I’m covered in a sticky lather of sweat and juice, hurriedly extricating botrytized clusters of Riesling with my bare hands and high-stepping to the end of the row to hurl them into the headlands…

Crazy, you say?

I know you are, but what am I.    (P.W. Herman 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, July 13th, 2015

They are not the most captivating of birds.  No one has ever said, “Look at the beautiful Robin, dear!”  Up close they look even homelier.  I discovered this while thinning Syrah today and abruptly coming face to face with two baby Robins, nestled smack dab in the middle of my vine.

Robins are utilitarian worm hunters.  They don’t grace the logo of any sports teams as far as I know – the more popular Blue Jays, Orioles and Cardinals dominate this category.  Even the famous “Boy Wonder” was a trusty sidekick at best.  You don’t even really notice them until they are looking you directly in the eye.  Is this their vine or is it mine?

I make the decision to leave this vine a little “fuller” than I’d like, but any further removal of shoots would compromise their foundation.  The obsessive side of me makes a mental note to return to this particular vine later in summer.

Upon further reflection, I feel it appropriate to anoint the unassuming Robin as the official bird of Lowrey Vineyards.  Far from flashy, a little rough around the edges, somehow lurking under the radar while in plain sight and then BAM! – Holy Syrah, Batman – all of a sudden we’re right under your nose.

Syrah Babies

 

Friday, June 12th, 2015

I find it very easy to put off writing when faced with a multitude of vineyard jobs and the constant opportunity to chat with friendly visitors.  Interesting topics float in and out of my brain as I squat to carefully tie up the precious suckers offered by winter-ravaged vines of Sauvignon Blanc, but putting wine-stained finger to keyboard seems a chore at the end of a long day.

So why do I feel all charged up tonight?  It’s got to be that vineyard green!  There is something about the vigour exhibited by grapevines growing in June that gets my blood flowing.  Vines that seemed all but dead months ago now brim with green shoots to the point of needing a good thin.  I can barely keep up with the growth, but the vines are ahead of schedule and into bloom a full week earlier than the last couple of years.  Even the deluge of early June rain can’t dampen my enthusiasm!  Anticipation outweighs setback at this stage, as the inevitable diseases have yet to rear their ugly spores (talk to me in a week and I’ll likely be singing a different tune).

There are exceptions – sobering reminders of the harsh winter and a catastrophic worst case scenario that was all too close to becoming reality.  Perhaps that is what makes those rare fruit-bearing vines so inspiring.  Syrah, Pinot Gris and Sauv Blanc will all likely be 50-75% down in crop level, but thankfully the majority of vines are still alive and throwing suckers.  Sourcing fruit from those varieties will be a challenge for all Ontario wineries this vintage.

My current glee could also be traced to a rainy day racking session earlier this week.  I was able to get an intimate look at all 2013 and 2014 reds as I siphoned them out of and then back into their cosy oak homes.  Some of them were a little unhappy to see me so early, but most were WAY more polished than I anticipated (insert huge exhale here).

It reinforces what I’ve been hearing from visitors to our barn this year: each of our wines has their own distinct personality, and those differences make them interesting and enjoyable.  It’s not about vintages being “better” or “worse” than one anther, but rather entirely unique upon comparison.  That is an exciting prospect when you find yourself worrying that future wines won’t stack up to the current crowd pleasers.  One excited taster recently proclaimed he’d never met a Five Rows wine he didn’t enjoy.  The fact that he was my Dad shouldn’t really matter.  Tainted praise is still praise to hungry ears.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

Each year I struggle to come up with original descriptors for our wines.  Each varietal is crafted to best express our terroir, therefore they tend to fit a similar style from vintage to vintage.  Tasting notes can sometimes sound like a broken record, so I usually try to make them more story-based.

This year I’ve tried to come up with a phrase or two that might best represent my feelings towards each wine.  Keep in mind that I am usually testing the wines when these ideas spring my mind.  Here are a few samples from my notebook:

2012 Pinot Noir:  Enjoying the many complex layers exhibited by this wine magically erases the emotional scars of growing Pinot Noir.  Maybe it’s the resveratrol.

2014 Pinot Gris:  Drinking this wine can lead to moments of spontaneous joy and irrational behaviour, like agreeing to adopt a third cat.  Drink with caution.

2014 Riesling:  This wine is my wife’s favourite, but sadly alcohol makes her sick.  Although not sick enough to stop wanting more cats.

2012 Syrah:  This wine reminds me why we take the risk to grow Syrah in Ontario.  Two rough winters in a row have shaken my conviction at times.

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon:  This wine makes me envious of people who grow grapes in California. Not because it’s easier to ripen Cab Sauv there and every year is like 2012, but because they get to live in California!

2014 Sauvignon Blanc:  This wine helps cure writer’s block*

*claim pending 

 

For slightly more serious tasting notes click here

 

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Being stuck in the mud never felt so good.  The usual nuisance of “sinking while pruning” seems a welcome hindrance this year.  My smile widens with each heavy step and I can’t help thinking that “thaw” is a beautiful word.

There are many things that signal spring to my internal body clock: bottling new wines, the smell of melted wax and new cardboard, writers cramp, bud counts, the Masters, muddy paws and baseball.  Together, they form a complex emotional mix of stress (bottling and dead buds) and thrilling relief (tasting the new wines and the promise of golf season).

April 2nd was my own personal vernal equinox this year, as we bottled all of our new wines (830 cases!) without a hitch.  It represents the culmination of three years of work for the 2012 reds and a year for the 2014 whites.  Big thanks to all of my helpers, from the case fillers to the bottle dumpers to the humble stackers.  I’ve said it before, but my biggest advice to someone starting a mini craft winery like ours would be to find a reliable mobile bottling line.  Glenn, Randy and Justin from Hunter Bottling make my life easy on bottling day.  The new truck is amazing!

Those who’ve joined our contact list will receive an email in the coming weeks with details of the new release.  Our goal is to re-open the barn by May 1st and I can’t wait for everyone to try the new wines!

Good to the last drop!